Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cellphone Crysis

The smartphone wars are finally on. I love the irony... first the cellular carriers said pre-paid plans would never take off, then the European (and veeeeeeery slowly American) markets proved them wrong. Then they thought that having a closed platform and refusing to let independent developers write apps would allow them to market "exclusive" content, and Apple drop-kicked that notion in the groin. Finally carriers posited the Blackberry theory of economics where only business users would pay for unlimited data plans. And now Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T have cost-effective calling plans for personal use. In fact, Sprint just announced $70 "everything" plan to really give T-Mobile and AT&T some competition.

All this fighting and vying for consumer dollars has worked on my feeble willpower. I my brain is pretty suggestive when the marketing war machine comes charging at me. I'm at the point now where I've self-justified the purchase of some smartphone in my near future, especially since I'm going to be re-negotiating my contract in the coming months. This is a complete 180 degree turn-around for me... three years ago I swore off multipurpose devices entirely because of my craptastic PalmOS smartphone.

This is a new era however. Now phones can have OpenGL acceleration, hardware video decoding, unlimited fast data access and capacitive high-resolution touch-screens. The PowerVR mobile chipsets are especially compelling, offering decoding and OpenGL ES acceleration using tile-based rendering.

Currently the only readily available smartphones with hardware-accelerated OpenGL are the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre, with the Motorola Sholes supposedly launching with Android and PowerVR soon. However, Palm quite stupidly offers no way for developers to tap into the power of hardware-accelerated OpenGL with their inspid WebOS SDK (as far as I can tell). Supposedly Motorola's Sholes will offer PowerVR acceleration with OpenGL ES soon, but it's landing on the overpriced Verizon network. And the iPhone's exclusive carrier AT&T has reputation for poor service and dropped calls; indeed most people I speak with on their network drop or cut out. Ultimately Nokia's n900, which runs on the custom Maemo OS and a PowerVR chipset, would offer the best platform / hardware combination of any other smartphone out there... but the hardware purchase currently isn't subsidized by any carriers and so is a bit prohibitive.

Out-of-the-box VPN connectivity is important to me also. I connect to clients using Cisco's VPN gateways (using vpnc) often as well as OpenVPN. With Nokia's Maemo OS I can do both vpnc and OpenVPN, with iPhone OS 3.x I can do Cisco VPN IPSec, and with Android I can do neither (without root access). However, ports of vpnc and OpenVPN clients are likely in the future with Android, since it's a Linux-based embedded system that does support tun devices.

With Sprint wanting to win the smartphone war on its own CDMA network it has made some compelling decisions. Their consumer-friendly data plans are nice, but it's upcoming launch of the HTC Hero means it has a well-received handset to push the service as well. Engadget reviewed the European model a little while back and thought it seemed like an ambitious OS on insufficient hardware, nagged by stuttering and slow rendering. Their review of the US Sprint model found the exact same issue, however CrunchGear gave the smartphone high marks and said it doesn't suffer the same stuttering and lag that previous incarnations of the Hero suffered.

So which to choose? The iPhone GS definitely has superior hardware, but its current exclusive carrier makes it a hard pill to swallow. Why by a smartphone when the "phone" part doesn't quite pan out? The Palm Pre has a great UI and fantastic hardware, but the developer SDK is limited and so independent development is stifled. The n900 would be fantastic - it uses Qt 4 for application development, has a very open SDK and OS and runs on some great hardware. If the n900 could find a home on a good carrier that would subsidize it's purchase, it would easily be the #1 contender.

Is Sprint's Hero the best choice? It hasn't even launched yet... it's due October 11th... but it already has been opening to good reviews. However the Hero appears to not allow root access and doesn't permit tethering, limiting my ability to tap into the subsystem and have vpnc or OpenVPN clients running. It also lacks hardware acceleration such as the PowerVR chipset, although it does offer OpenGL ES support via software rendering. Sprint's carrier service is quite good - however I'd have to compromise on both of my "must have" features.

Bleh. Maybe I'll just wait until Q4 and see how this all pans out. Right now there's no phone that has a reliable carrier, hardware accelerated OpenGL and OpenVPN clients. Or maybe I'll just buckle because my self-restraint is remarkably weak.

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